How to succeed without burning out: Ariana Huffington on how to live life right
In an exclusive chat with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi , the world’s champion of sound sleep quotes Rumi, and tells you to believe that everything is planned for a reason.Updated: May 20, 2017 22:36 IST
“A” is the only person for who I’ve ever missed a flight. Two years ago, after our lunch in Colaba, I was scheduled to fly to Goa. But she had to look for gifts for a friend who had had a baby – would I join her? Outside of being one of the most influential opinion-makers in the world, Arianna (Huffington) had won my mind at lunch with her hands-on scholarship and considered listening. Naturally, I agreed, and by the time we were done, I failed to make my flight. Since then, as our friendship evolved, her counsel has impressed me, and this conversation is proof that even while she was at Davos and mired in talks with likes of Shakira, she made time for our chat.
Live life large
I begin with a rather long question. Your life has embodied an important motif: fate does not merely hand you second chances, it hands you chance after chance, if you are able to listen. After the end of your marriage, you founded a blog, one you probably never imagined would turn into an empire of sorts. Now, you’ve set aside the Huffington Post crown and are on the cusp of Thrive (which among its goals, aims to eradicate the burnout epidemic and advocates all round well-being – and sleep – in particular). What’s the role of chance in your life; and how would you guide someone to distinguish between chances for transformation vs the persuasions of distraction?
“Given that change is inevitable,” she starts, her eyes gleaming with warmth, “And we can’t know the future, the role of chance is big in all our lives. Mine is no exception. I also believe there is a purpose to our lives, even though it’s sometimes hidden from us. And often, the biggest turning points and failures and successes only make sense as we look back at them in the rear-view mirror, rather than as we’re experiencing them. So what I would tell people would be to live life, as one of my favourite poets Rumi put it, as if everything is rigged in our favour.”
I point out that her website was built on forms of expression – opinion pieces, breakthrough reportage, personal videos etc. And yet, one casualty of excessive expression means we struggle to consolidate a private self that is scattered by public dissemination. Was this one of her motivations behind Thrive?
“After I collapsed from exhaustion in 2007, I became more and more passionate about the need to shift our culture away from the delusion that we have to burn out in order to succeed,” she tells me. “And then I wrote my books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. And as I went around the world speaking about them, and our epidemic of stress, burnout and sleep deprivation, I saw how deeply people want to change their lives. So I wanted to go farther than just raising awareness – I felt the need to turn this passion into something real and tangible that would begin to help people change their daily lives. It was a call to action I couldn’t ignore, and so I founded Thrive Global.”
Strength vs power
Arianna’s work has consolidated her position as one of the most powerful women in the world. I’ve known people on such lists, which over time have only made me question our public definitions of power. Conventionally, power means to radiate wealth, fame, clout. But increasingly, I’m inspired more by strength, which is innate and clean, and radiates steely endurance.
“On a beach holiday recently, instead of snapping shots of sunsets and tweeting photos of my dinner, I took in the rare pleasure of just talking, having shared experiences, and being immersed in the present.”
“You speak of this in your book Thrive, which you gave me in Mumbai two years, ago, about redefining the metric of success. How will these endeavours of remapping success span out in Thrive Global?” I ask.
“I love your distinction between power and strength, and you’re absolutely right to value the latter much more – we all have strength,” she says warmly. “And, yes, redefining success will absolutely be a part of Thrive Global. That’s because our broken definition of success is what fuels this culture of burnout. The current wellness landscape deals with downstream symptoms of the epidemic – conditions and illnesses like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Thrive Global intervenes upstream, at the root causes – the stress and burnout caused by this flawed definition of success.”
I confess that I’m considering a digital detox and ask her advice. “You should definitely do it!” she affirms. “I did one over the holidays at the beach with my family in 2014. Instead of snapping shots of sunsets and tweeting photos of my dinner, what I got instead were the rare pleasures of just talking, having shared experiences, and just being immersed in the present. So I don’t think you’ll be tempted to tell people what you ate for dinner – you’ll be too immersed in great conversation.”
She recommends Thrive Global’s app ThriveAway to aid my digital detox. “It’s a vacation email tool that automatically deletes your incoming emails when you’re away, while also letting senders know when you will be back so they can email you again if they want. You can truly disconnect and recharge, which is the point of the vacation (or, in your case, going off the grid). This way, you won’t be tempted to secretly check your email or worry about a mountain of email when you get back on the grid.”
We go on to speak about success and I tell her for me, success is being alone without experiencing loneliness; it is being free from people’s perception of me; it is also being out in the sun, on the beach, I cannot imagine success greater than to privilege myself with sunlight. So what does success mean for Arianna?
“That’s a wonderful definition of success,” she compliments. “And, yes, we all have our own. It’s important not to just accept society’s definition of success. For me, it’s about being present for those I love – my daughters, loved ones and friends – and also being able to meaningfully connect with others and make a difference in someone’s life.”
I tell her about a recent public crisis I endured – attacks on a piece I had written, which in turn had me questioning man-y friendships. Arianna is no stranger to public criticism. So, when one is in the middle of a public crisis – when people, in droves, are hounding you – what is the correct response? “Mostly to just ignore it,” she confirms to me, waving her hand calmly. “You can’t control what other people say and think, but you can control your response, which is an idea we get from the Stoics. And it’s just as important not to listen to that internal voice of criticism and self-doubt, which I call ‘the obnoxious roommate’ living in our heads.”
Give peace a chance
It sometimes seems odd for someone so busy to advocate quiet time. Hardly a day goes by when she is not doing a talk, whizzing off on a jet, handling a new business. “So how do you reconcile the contrariness of advocating time for oneself and a simpler schedule when you’re on the run, setting up yet another (we hope) empire of ideas?” I query.
She draws a slow breath. “Well now (since her collapse from exhaustion) I do it while not taking my sleep and well-being for granted. Yes, I fly a lot, but I’ve gotten very good at sleeping on planes and I take a lot of measures to prevent jet lag, especially napping. And when I’m home I try to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.”
We discuss the changing nature of reporting, the suspect role of mainstream media, and how the Trump election forced us all to re-think the political punditry on display. Not only online surveys but even the esteemed New York Times had predicted a landslide Hillary win. “This shows how the Internet is very different from the undermined but invincible reality called the people,” I tell her. “All those deeply felt essays I had pored over in the Guardian were only the intellectual equivalent of a cat video: amusing but good only for recess.”
She laughs: “Actually, probably worse than cat videos, since cat videos can be very entertaining! But, yes, the mountain of what in America is known as horse race analysis – endless real-time speculation about motives and who’s up and who’s down – and polls only distracts from the real issues.”
Finally, we speak about a reunion, either in America or in India, and I ask her what role has India played for her consciousness. “When I was 17, I studied comparative religion at Visva-Bharati University, outside of Calcutta. And during that time I travelled all across India, and fell in love with the country. And I’ve loved it ever since.”
All I can say is: Colaba is calling, Arianna, hurry back over.
The writer is a bestselling author, photographer and the co-founder of the Sensorium Festival, an annual arts festival in Goa
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From HT Brunch, May 21, 2017
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